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Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 is a 'Vette refined -- but with staggering power

Rob

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Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 is a 'Vette refined -- but with staggering power

By EDDIE ALTERMAN
THE NEW YORK TIMES

DETROIT -- The Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 is the most powerful production car General Motors has ever built, a Ferrari-whompin' Lamborghini-humiliatin', $105,000 melange of exotic materials and American pluck.

Although endowed with the 'Vette's customary Vegas Strip styling, the ZR1 only looks like a regular Corvette. Nearly everything underneath, including the symbolism, is different.

This is not to take anything away from the accomplishments of the base car, but let's face it: That thing has an image problem. Too many would-be owners are scared off by the car's aging X-rated-film-star vibe and by the demands of what 'Vette cultists ominously call "the lifestyle."

The cult's bylaws seem to mandate that all members must spend every summer Saturday with fellow 'Vetteheads -- doing nothing but looking at, talking about and diaper-buffing their star-spangled sports cars.

You might assume that owning an even more powerful Corvette such as the ZR1 would only suck you deeper into this vortex. But this 638-horsepower machine actually grants transcendence from it. The ZR1's substance so completely overwhelms its style that even the snobbiest Eurocar snobs will be awed by the sophisticated engineering.

As one of a handful of 600-plus-horsepower cars on the road, the ZR1 posts a quicker zero-to-60 time (3.4 seconds) than the $1 million Ferrari Enzo. Its rear brakes are as big as those on a $1.6 million Bugatti Veyron. It gets 20 miles per gallon on the highway.

Then there is the matter of its style. Flaunting its mastery of the metaphysical, the ZR1 further distances itself from the regular Corvette by looking almost exactly like it. Because the shape hews so closely to that of the standard coupe, there is the danger that it might emit the same Aramis-scented radiation.

In fact, the opposite is true: Whereas a normal Corvette is flashier than its competition (such as the Porsche 911), the ZR1's familiar shape makes it seem restrained next to its Italian rivals.

In my time with the car, the only attention I got was from an appreciative Bentley driver who gave me that universal car-guy sign of approval: the thumbs up. This incident, I think, proves that this is the anti-'Vette, a giant-killing supercar that uses Chevy's bodywork for cover.

Aside from that recognizable silhouette, almost nothing beyond the interior, engine block and transverse leaf springs is shared with the base car.

For one thing, a supercharger, visible through a Plexiglas skylight on the hood, bestows the staggering power; other Corvettes breathe without help.

For another, the ZR1 is made of different stuff: The sports-car-afflicted will recall that in 2006, for its 505-horse $65,800 Corvette Z06, Chevrolet did an unprecedented thing and replaced the standard-issue steel-and-fiberglass Corvette construction with a racer's mix of lightweight aluminum, carbon fiber and magnesium. The ZR1 takes the Z06 body and grafts on even more high-tech skin.

To help offset the 182 pounds added by the supercharger, magnetic dampers, huge wheels and special brakes, Chevy gave the car a carbon-fiber roof, roof hoop and hood. Think of them as carbon offsets, Detroit-style.

At 3,324 pounds soaking wet, the ZR1 is still the heaviest of the current Corvettes, but it's lighter and has a better power-to-weight ratio than either the Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 or the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano. No wonder it just won my award for best value in the $100,000-plus category.

Those numbers, and more like them, were running through my head as I climbed aboard. Even though the ZR1 looks familiar inside, with seats shaped like a child's semi-deflated punching clown, I tried not to let my guard down.

I recalled that this machine set a lap time of 7:26.4 on the challenging 12.9-mile Nuerburgring race track in Germany, faster than any road-going Porsche or Lamborghini (but not faster than the Dodge Viper ACR).

I pressed the start button and instinctively flinched, expecting a metalhead's air-brushed fantasia of blood-drenched beasts in Viking helmets to rip through the hood. But nope, no drama.

Even though its 6.2-liter V-8 has almost tidal power, the ZR1 woke up quietly. I goosed the throttle to hear the faint whistling of the supercharger. This blower has two four-lobe rotors that turn at 15,000 rpm to shove compressed air into the engine, and they are coated in a powder that degrades slightly to perfect the rotors' contact surfaces. The whine that accompanies any supercharged engine was there, but it sounded as if it were coming from a teakettle inside the neighbor's house.

I depressed the clutch pedal and remembered that when GM engineers gave me a walk-around of the car, they made a big deal of how its six-speed manual transmission engages using a dual-disc clutch. They said it spread powertrain forces over two clutch plates rather than one, adding "pleaseability" to the shift quality. I made a mentalification of that for when I would driveulate the car later on.

Now I understood what they were talking about. The clutch was light and precise, making for natural shifts of the close-ratio gears.

The whole car is like that. There's no learning curve, no special skill required to keep it from punching a Corvette-size hole through the nearest brick wall. I nosed it onto a rising, sweeping two-lane that runs alongside a state park and marveled at the car's civility. It has an easy-modulating throttle, little tire noise and a ride more supple than that of the Volvo my wife drives.

Then I came to a stop sign, turned the two-mode damper switch from Tour to Sport and initiated the gas-depletion sequence. A huge wave of torque picked the car up and hurtled it forward in a confusion of G-forces and noise. This is a church-organ V-8 -- heavy, ground-shaking lows run all the way up to hard, tremulous highs. And unlike most supercharged cars, the ZR1 doesn't run out of steam at elevated revs.

What it does run out of is road. Any kind of road. Nothing this powerful has ever been this composed over chewed-up pavement. Because of its magneto-rheological dampers -- their internal fluid instantaneously firms up or relaxes according to road conditions -- the ZR1 won't squat or lean or bobble around. It scoffs at broken concrete, files its nails on rumble strips. Its seductive combination of stability, grip and body control urges you to go faster.

Though the whole package seems unstoppable, it is clearly not: The gigantic Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes negate speed as if they were rewinding a tape.

So is the ZR1 flawless? Of course not. It needs an interior befitting a $100,000 car, preferably one without a steering wheel borrowed from the Malibu. And 638 horses might seem a tad obnoxious. But I defy anyone who's driven the car not to harbor unclean longings for it.

The obscenely powerful ZR1 is made all the more beguiling because it is so refined -- a quality few people associate with Corvettes. Though not perfect, the ZR1 is the most perfect 'Vette yet, and everyone can get behind that.
 

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